U.S. House Passes Repeal of Health Insurers’ Antitrust Exemption

The U.S. House of Representatives voted Wednesday to take a 65-year-old antitrust exemption away from health insurance companies, leaning hard on an industry that has been the focus of criticism for fast-rising rates.

The chamber voted 406 to 19 to effectively repeal an antitrust exemption that has meant that states take the lead in enforcing antitrust law for health insurers. Consumer groups say states often lack the resources to effectively regulate insurers.

“Just recently 80,000 Iowans were told that their insurance rates would go up 18 percent,” said Rep. Leonard Boswell in debate before the vote. “Iowans in the 3rd district are struggling to make ends meet.”

The debate took place on the margins of a larger healthcare debate. On Thursday, President Barack Obama will host a healthcare summit, the latest step in his uphill battle to break an impasse in Congress over a sweeping overhaul of the $2.5 trillion industry, one of his domestic policy priorities.

Supporters portrayed the bill as a way to tamp down sharply rising health insurance costs, such as those from WellPoint Inc , which raised rates an average of 25 percent for some Anthem Blue Cross customers in California.

WellPoint Chief Executive Angela Braly, at a hearing on the issue Wednesday, said the company was concerned that it would lose the ability to share data with other companies. “It’s not going to affect healthcare costs one way or another,” she said.

The Senate Judiciary Committee’s version of the legislation is narrower in some ways than the House version, although the Senate bill also strips medical malpractice insurers of their antitrust exemption. Obama has said that he would sign the repeal into law.

(Additional reporting by Susan Heavey, editing by Matthew Lewis)